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NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (9-6) at New Orleans (11-4)



By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - The New Orleans Saints find themselves faced with a bit of a dilemma heading into its regular-season finale with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Their opponent, on the other hand, has no such reservations about the mindset it will have to take when taking the Superdome field this coming Sunday.

Although the Saints are assured of a spot in the upcoming NFC Playoffs, they can be slotted into two very different positions depending on the outcome of this weekend's games. New Orleans still has a chance to earn the conference's coveted No. 1 overall seed, but that's contingent on the powerhouse Atlanta Falcons losing at home to the Carolina Panthers, owners of the league's worst overall record, on Sunday.

If the Panthers are able to pull off the upset and the Saints defeat the Buccaneers, New Orleans will have home-field advantage throughout the NFC tournament as well as a greatly-desired bye for next week's opening round. If the more likely scenario of the Falcons prevailing occurs, however, the reigning world champs would be seeded fifth and travel to the winner of the NFC West (either St. Louis or Seattle) in a Wild Card matchup on either Jan. 8 or 9.

The Atlanta-Carolina game will be going on at the same time as the Saints' battle with the still-alive Buccaneers, meaning there'll be plenty of scoreboard-watching taking place on the New Orleans sideline when the team competes.

New Orleans kept its chances of claiming both the NFC South and No. 1 seed possible by knocking off the division-leading Falcons in a 17-14 thriller Monday at the Georgia Dome, ending Atlanta's eight-game winning streak in the process. The triumph was the seventh in the past eight outings for the Saints and a strong bounce-back from a 30-24 setback at Baltimore the previous week.

Saints head coach Sean Payton has stated he'll be playing to win Sunday's contest, but took a similar public stance prior to last year's Week 17 tilt at Carolina. He then decided to either rest or limit the time of several starters, most notably quarterback Drew Brees, with New Orleans already having locked up the NFC's top seed.

The Saints went on to lose to the Panthers -- their third straight defeat to conclude the regular season -- but Payton's approach still paid off. New Orleans regained momentum during the playoffs and ripped off three consecutive victories to capture the franchise's first-ever Lombardi Trophy.

For the Buccaneers, the message is much clearer -- win Sunday's game and your playoff hopes will remain intact. Tampa Bay still needs considerable help in order to seize the NFC's final Wild Card berth, however, as Green Bay and the New York Giants also have to lose on Sunday in order for the Bucs to extend their season.

The Packers host NFC North champ Chicago and the Giants travel to Washington, with both games being held during the later portion of Sunday's schedule.

Tampa Bay kept itself in the discussion by dominating wayward Seattle last Sunday, getting a career-high five touchdown passes out of young quarterback Josh Freeman and a personal-best 164 rushing yards from rookie running back LeGarette Blount en route to a 38-15 rout.

Though their goal of reaching the postseason may be difficult to attain, the Buccaneers can still achieve a couple of other objectives by besting the Saints. A win would give Tampa Bay double-digit victories for the first time since 2005 and disprove the notion that the up-and-coming club isn't yet ready to seriously challenge the league's heavyweights.

The Bucs are 0-5 against teams that currently possess a positive record in 2010, which includes a 31-6 thrashing by New Orleans in Tampa during Week 6. The Saints outgained the Buccaneers by a 475-277 margin in total yards that day, with Brees throwing for three touchdowns to lead the way.

SERIES HISTORY

New Orleans sports a 22-15 advantage in its all-time set with Tampa Bay after its road rout of the Buccaneers back in October, but were shocked by the Bucs in a 20-17 overtime loss at the Superdome during Week 16 of its eventual Super Bowl champion 2009 season. Tampa Bay has had success as the road team in this series in recent years, winning five of the past seven matchups between the divisional foes in the Big Easy, and hasn't been swept by the Saints in a season since 2006.

Payton is 5-4 against the Buccaneers in his career, while Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris is 1-2 versus both Payton and the Saints as a head coach.

WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL

Tampa Bay will have a considerably different look than the team that was steamrolled by the Saints earlier in the year, especially on the offensive end. Blount (941 rushing yards, 6 TD) didn't get a single touch in that game, in which the Buccaneers registered a season-low 42 rushing yards, but the powerful rookie has emerged as the centerpiece of a revitalized ground attack that's averaged over 155 yards over the last seven weeks and piled up 208 on the submissive Seahawks last Sunday. Blount finished with over 100 yards in three of the Bucs' four December tests and is averaging a healthy 5.2 yards per carry on the season. Freeman's (3196 passing yards, 23 TD, 6 INT) prolific performance against Seattle was the highlight of what's been a splendid sophomore campaign for the 2009 first-round pick, and the poised 22-year-old has been terrific in directing an offense that's committed the second-fewest turnovers (17) in the NFC. Rookie receiver Mike Williams (61 receptions, 10 TD) has quickly made quite an impact as well, with the 23-year-old having tied a club record for touchdown catches in a season after getting two in Tampa's Week 16 win. Tight end Kellen Winslow (63 receptions, 5 TD) also hauled in two scoring strikes from Freeman in the Seattle game, part of a season-best seven- catch, 98-yard display for the one-time Pro Bowler in Cleveland. The receiving corps was dealt a tough blow during last week's game, though, as promising first-year wideout Arrelious Benn (25 receptions, 2 TD) tore his ACL and is done for the season.

The Saints know what's coming from Tampa Bay on Sunday and are equipped to stop it, as evidenced by Monday's stout showing against the Falcons. A defensive charge headed by standout middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma (104 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT) and strongside starter Jo-Lonn Dunbar (38 tackles, 1 sack) held Atlanta factor back Michael Turner to a pedestrian 48 yards on 17 attempts, while end Will Smith (38 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 1 INT) was constantly in Matt Ryan's face all game long, notching one sack and helping force the Falcons' Pro Bowl quarterback into an off-target 15-of-29 night. He and tackle Sedrick Ellis (41 tackles, 6 sacks) are the primary pressure-creators of a group that's surrendering just 191.3 passing yards per game, the second-lowest total in the NFL, as well as a league-low 11 touchdowns through the air. The heady play of cornerback Jabari Greer (58 tackles, 2 INT, 12 PD) and versatile free safety Malcolm Jenkins (62 tackles, 2 INT, 12 PD) has also contributed greatly to that high-level standing.

WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL

New Orleans does the majority of its offensive damage by throwing the football, with the deadly-accurate Brees (4424 passing yards, 32 TD, 21 INT) the architect of a diverse attack that's second in the NFL in passing yards (282.8 ypg) and sports a host of capable weapons. Big-bodied wide receiver Marques Colston (84 receptions, 1023 yards, 7 TD) usually serves as Brees' go-to guy, but talented counterpart Robert Meachem (43 receptions, 5 TD) took on that role in the Atlanta game, posting a career-best 10 catches for a season-high 101 yards. Slotman Lance Moore (60 receptions, 8 TD) can be a handful for enemy defenses as well, while rookie tight end Jimmy Graham (29 receptions, 4 TD) is a developing star who's come up with three touchdown grabs over the past two weeks. The Saints ran the ball extremely effectively in their first meeting with Tampa, grinding out a season-best 212 rushing yards and getting a personal-high 158 on only 15 totes from youngster Chris Ivory (683 rushing yards, 5 TD). However, the rookie has been battling a hamstring injury and appears likely to miss a third straight game, which makes steady veteran Pierre Thomas (269 rushing yards, 2 TD, 29 receptions) the top suitor for carries on Sunday. New Orleans has attempted only 358 running plays for the season, the fourth-lowest amount in the league.

Don't be surprised if the Saints take to the ground more often this week, as Tampa Bay has been rather porous in stopping that aspect for much of the season. The Buccaneers are 28th overall in run defense (133.4 ypg) and permitted over 180 rushing yards in back-to-back December games against Washington and Detroit before doing a better job in containing the anemic Seahawks last Sunday. The Bucs yielded a season-low 174 total yards against Seattle and recorded three sacks, two of which came from weakside linebacker Geno Hayes (74 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT). A secondary headlined by cornerback and five-time Pro Bowl honoree Ronde Barber (78 tackles, 3 INT, 10 PD) has garnered 18 interceptions for the year and will be facing a quarterback in Brees who's thrown a career-high 21 picks in 2010, including at least one in each of New Orleans' last 11 games. Tampa Bay comes in ranked sixth in the league against the pass (201.1 ypg) and permitted a mere 84 net yards through the air in last week's victory.

FANTASY FOCUS

This is a tricky situation for those fantasy competitors with Saints on their roster, as the possibility exists that Payton could pull his starters early if either his team gets out to a comfortable lead or the Falcons do the same in their game. That makes players like Brees and Colston, normally weekly lineup locks, far more risky choices than usual. Thomas should be a safe selection, however, as the probable featured back with the ailing Ivory a candidate to be rested. Blount and Williams are excellent plays on the Tampa side this week, but don't read too much into Freeman and Winslow's stellar production in their last games, as both are customarily fringe starters with inconsistent overall numbers.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

There's little doubt the Saints are more skilled and proven than the still- developing Buccaneers, and would be a consensus pick in most weeks. This may not be like most weeks, however, due to the likelihood that New Orleans will be jumping right into the postseason fray shortly after Sunday's contest. The Saints will treat this game normally at the start, but if Atlanta begins pulling away in its matchup, don't be surprised if Payton winds up giving some of his stars an early exit with an eye towards next week. That may be the opening that Tampa Bay, which will be going all out with its playoff lives at stake, needs to obtain a victory it desperately needs. Freeman's made a history of orchestrating fourth-quarter comebacks during his brief pro career, and this could be another of those times.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 24, Saints 20

12/30 14:14:07 ET

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